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Malaysian GP preview: Has Vettel blown his shot at the title?

Focus on ... Singapore as a turning point

Sebastian Vettel's title chances took a huge blow in Singapore. On a circuit where Ferrari was expected to win from pole position, he retired from the race on the first lap with crash damage following a first corner pile-up that was arguably his fault. He now has six races to make up 28 points to Lewis Hamilton -- a tall order given the current form of the three-time world champion and the ever-improving performance of the Mercedes W08.

Sebastian Vettel. Sutton Images
The 2017 season has been defined by swings in competitiveness between the top two teams, but on paper the Sepang International Circuit -- with its long straights and high-speed corners -- should suit Mercedes. Ferrari will hope for a repeat of 2015 when its car's better tyre management allowed Vettel to defy the odds and take his first victory for the team, but such a result will depend on how well Pirelli's super-soft, soft and medium compounds stand up to the heat on race day and whether that results in strategic dilemma on the pit wall.

A victory for Vettel on a 'Mercedes track' won't wipe out Hamilton's point advantage this weekend, but it would provide a boost in confidence for Ferrari after the events of Singapore. The circuit characteristics of the final three races in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi could favour the strengths of Ferrari over Mercedes, so Vettel needs to remain within striking distance at the next three rounds. What's more Hamilton will have unpleasant memories of his experience here last year when an engine failure deprived him of a comfortable victory, and both teams know a single mechanical issue could swing the title one way or another.

Singapore was bad weekend for Ferrari, but whether it's the defining result of Vettel's title campaign will depend on whether he is able to bounce back at the upcoming races.

Goodbye Sepang

This weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix will be the last for the foreseeable future after the government decided not to renew its race contract beyond the end of this year. Poor attendances and high race fees were factors in the decision, but the grand prix still managed to outlive many of the other state-funded grands prix around the world and lasted 19 years on F1's ever-changing calendar.

The heat and humidity have always made for difficult working conditions in Sepang and the mechanics working in 40C garages are unlikely to mourn the loss of race. But for viewers at home it has always provided an unusual race, and for the drivers it was seen as the ultimate physical test on the calendar. As Formula One's new management looks to move to destination cities to host F1 races, government-backed super circuits like Sepang are likely to become part of F1's rich history.

In need of a podium

Max Verstappen last stood on the podium at the Chinese Grand Prix in April and has had a run of appalling luck ever since. For the most part he has been the innocent party in a series of reliability issues and accidents, but that won't help ease the pain of the 94-point gap to Daniel Red Bull teammate Ricciardo in the drivers' standings. He undoubtedly has the talent to score a good result this weekend, the question is whether he will have the car.

In need of points

Jolyon Palmer has spent most of his season fighting rumours about his immediate future in Formula One, and once again his insistence that he will remain on the grid has been proved right. Palmer was offered a significant amount of money to leave his seat at Renault this weekend and make way for the early arrival of Carlos Sainz from Toro Rosso, but turned down the offer. He now looks set to see out the remaining six races with the team, but his F1 future beyond that relies on convincing Williams he is worthy of a drive alongside Lance Stroll. The only way to do that is to continue to score results like his sixth-place finish in Singapore and for that reason he is in need of more points this weekend.

ESPN prediction

Lewis Hamilton is the overwhelming favourite to win in Malaysia, but the same could have been said this time last year only for the Mercedes driver to retire from a dominant lead with an engine failure. The Malaysian Grand Prix has a tendency to throw up random results and, now in its last year, it would be fitting if it provided one last surprise. For that reason, we are backing Kimi Raikkonen to win his first race of the year on the same track that gave him the first win of his career.

Weather

Lewis Hamilton is the overwhelming favourite to win in Malaysia, but the same could have been said this time last year only for the Mercedes driver to retire from a dominant lead with an engine failure. The Malaysian Grand Prix has a tendency to throw up random results and, now in its last year, it would be fitting if it provided one last surprise. For that reason, we are backing Kimi Raikkonen to win his first race of the year on the same track that gave him the first win of his career.

Betting

Lewis Hamilton is 5/6 to win the race on Sunday ahead of Sebastian Vettel at 2/1 and Valtteri Bottas at 11/2. If you believe what's written above, you can great odds on a surprise Kimi Raikkonen victory at 20/1 or even Daniel Ricciardo to repeat last year's results at 16/1. Malaysia has a history of offering up dramatic races, but if the weather looks clear on Sunday you can get odds of 16/1 on there being no retirements at all.
Weather

Author: Laurence Edmondson, ESPN UK
Source: http://www.espn.co.uk/f1/story/_/id/20843959/malaysian-grand-prix-preview-vettel-blown-shot-title

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